52 Improve Your Performance With Every Breath
Getting oxygen to your working muscles is the most natural thing in the world, but with the right training you can boost your performance with every breath you take
By training yourself to breathe better you’ll be able to go longer and harder with less effort
You’re standing outside waiting for a GPS lock. You haven’t taken a step, but in your brain a preparation process has already been triggered. ‘Your respiratory centre is found in an area of the brain called the hypothalamus,’ says Dr John Dickinson, Head of the Respiratory Clinic at the University of Kent. ‘It knows when you’re about to exercise, so you’ll unconsciously start breathing slightly faster and more deeply, and capillaries will start to dilate in anticipation of carrying more oxygen.’
As you set off, you need to consider how to help this natural response work effectively. ‘Starting slowly is key to allowing these processes to build up, rather than shocking the system,’ says Paul Hough, Lead Sport and Exercise Scientist at St Mary’s University Sports Performance Service (stmarys.ac.uk).
Managing your early effort to allow your system the time to kick in is particularly important if you’re a new runner, or rebuilding your fitness after a layoff. ‘The fitter you get, the quicker your oxygen kinetics will kick in at the beginning of a run,’ says Dickinson. ‘This means that the shift between rest and producing enough energy aerobically will be quicker, so the breathless discomfort that comes at the beginning of a run will be over with more quickly.’
If you’re paying attention as you start to run you’ll notice a shift in how you breathe. At rest, you breathe primarily through your nose, but very soon into a run ‘you switch to mouth breathing, as it’s the easiest way to draw in air’, says Dickinson. Although this delivers more air to your lungs, there is a downside: When you nose-breathe at rest, air is warmed and humidified by your nose, but breathing through your mouth during exercise bypasses this process. This can cause problems, especially in winter. ‘Dry, cold air can be damaging to the airways because the nose can’t do its normal job of warming/ humidifying,’ says Dickinson. ‘This means the lower airways in the lungs have to do it, which can lead to irritation.’ Over a long period, if you’re genetically susceptible and consistently run in very cold air, this could cause permanent damage to the lungs.
If it’s truly Arctic outside, consider wearing a scarf or bandana loosely across your face. ‘This warms the air before it goes down into your airways and also captures the moist breath coming out, which then humidifies the air going in,’ says Dickinson. ‘You can also avoid early runs in really cold conditions. The freezing, dry air of early morning will warm up and become moister later.’ RHYTHM AND POWER As your run progresses, your breaths become more frequent and your heart rate rises. Your muscles now have a greater need for oxygen to facilitate the conversion of carbs or fat into energy, and as the heart and lungs are responsible for delivering this oxygen, they have to work harder. ‘At rest, your lungs will be taking in 10-12 litres of air per minute. When you run, depending on how big you are and how fast you’re running, this increases by four to eight times,’ says Alison Mcconnell, Professor of Exercise Science at Bournemouth University and author of Breathestrong, Performbetter (Human Kinetics).
As things start to feel harder, breathing in rhythm can control the regularity and depth of your breathing, improving its efficiency and, in turn, boosting performance and lowering your perception of effort. ‘Break each phase of the breath into a number of footstrikes,’ says Mcconnell. ‘For example, begin your inhale on your left foot strike, continue it through the right footstrike, then exhale in the same pattern. You can experiment with what’s comfortable for you. This not
Practise these exercises from sports physio Jehan Yehia daily, at rest. The technique will transfer to your running.
01/ Place a hand on the base of your ribs and breathe in. Breath deeply from the lower ribs upwards, expanding the lower ribs and abdomen. You should feel the base of your ribs and abdomen expanding, not the front of your chest.
02/ Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Arch your lower back upwards, then flatten it into the floor, and then find a neutral position between the two. Take three deep breaths, feeling your lower ribs and abdomen expand, then ‘rest’ with three normal breaths. Repeat, this time holding each breath for a couple of seconds before exhaling.
Once you’ve mastered good diaphragmatic breathing, try inspiratory-muscle training (IMT). ‘Running strengthens the diaphragm, but you don’t get the results you get with inspiratory training,’ says Sharpe. The most accessible method is a device such as a Powerbreathe (powerbreathe.com), which has a valve that provides resistance as you inhale.